BWW EXCLUSIVE: TANGLED Directors Nathan Greno & Byron Howard
Today we are talking to the talented and visionary directors of the new Disney Digital 3D animated feature film musical adventure TANGLED, Nathan Greno and ByRon Howard. In this informative conversation, we discuss their affection for animation and what the two-year-plus process of creating this film has been like coming after the resounding success of BOLT! Plus, a thorough discussion of the story, structure, style and characterizations brought to the film thanks to the vocal talents - musical and otherwise - of MAndy Moore, Zachary Levi and Donna Murphy. TANGLED will be released in movie theaters nationwide on November 24th so be sure you don't miss the newest animated musical film - one with a score by five-time Oscar-winner Alan Menken and lyrics by David Zippel - being added to the classic, iconic, Disney canon.
I See The Light - In 3D!
PC: How do you feel about the way movies are marketed to the internet generation?
BH: The internet is amazing. Nathan and I are both young, savvy computer users. We are trying to get the film trailers and everything out there on the internet. It's great now because it used to be limited just by what came out in newspapers and, maybe, word-of-mouth and maybe TV advertisements. Now, it's so instantaneous.
NG: It's a pretty exciting time to be alive, I guess. (Laughs.) It's awesome how you can put your trailer online and it's so easy for people to access things and for us to put images out there.
BH: It's also great how you can go on the internet and search specifically based on your interests. If you are interested in musicals or art, you can search for "musicals" or "art". You can be so specific and get results so quickly.
BH: That's so true about GLEE! It's really incredible. I've been watching GLEE since it started and it is an incredible show and to see how popular it has become and how quickly it has caught on is just amazing. We were excited that Donna was going to be talking to you and we got a chance to, too, because music is such a huge part of this movie. The movie is for everyone - I mean, it has action and romance and adventure - but, it also has this great, great music which we really tried to comb the talent in the United States to get the very best voices to sing it for this movie.
PC: You can't get much better than Donna Murphy!
BH: Donna Murphy is tip-top. We saw a lot of folks for Gothel - hundreds of actresses, all amazing - but, Donna just had that something extra. When we saw her we knew we had to have her.
PC: What did she sing at her audition?
BH: I think she sang a song from INTO THE WOODS...
NG: "Children Will Listen".
PC: Are you guys Sondheim fans, then?
BH & NG: Oh, yeah!
PC: How does the score for TANGLED stand up as a musical score and how does it function in the film?
BH: Well, you know what, one of the nice things that Alan Menken suggested when he first came in - and the thing that we loved, because we wanted to do something fresh and different, as good as everything is that Disney has done in the past - so, Alan said, "What if the music in this movie - especially the Rapunzel music - is more of a singer-songwriter type? Like a Joni Mitchell or a Cat Stevens?" And, we thought that was great because what Nathan and I had always sort of imagined for this Rapunzel story was this very real, teenage, girl next door - just sitting alone with her guitar in her room and writing songs. And, Alan just went to town with that in the music.
NG: There's something that's really exciting that's going on in this film - and it's one of the aspects that's different and fresh - and that's that we're trying to add the old and the new and make something completely different and completely fresh with it. You know, there hadn't been a 3D animated film in which the characters sing before this. We hadn't done that before. That's something new and we plan to continuing on pushing in that direction with Disney. Totally new, totally fresh, totally unexpected.
PC: How is Gothel's music in comparison to Rapunzel's?
BH: It's interesting, because whereas Rapunzel's music is young and contemporary and fresh, Alan tried to make Gothel's music more classic Broadway. Like stage music.
PC: How do they visually compare - even down to the animation techniques - particularly in the musical sequences?
BH: With Gothel's songs... one of the things we tried to do with how she looks in comparison to Rapunzel - you know, she has this long beautiful blonde hair and green eyes - we tried to make Gothel in stark contrast. I mean, Gothel is beautiful and striking in her own way - Gothel has this black wavy hair and striking blue-grey eyes. The two look nothing alike.
PC: And the music?
BH: We tried to make their music much different. Gothel is very classical - like a big stage diva type role.
PC: Could Donna help you shed some light on that aspect?
BH: Donna was so great. She really put a lot of personality into this character when she came in. We asked her to just dig deep and help us figure it all out. When Donna first came in, one of the great things she did was have us sit and talk to her for like an hour and a half. She was very intense and asked us question after question about who the character was and what she's thinking and what her backstory was - some things that aren't even in the movie - and, then, after that she went away and thought about it for a day or two.
PC: Did it pay off?
BH: Even in her first recording session she nailed the character. I think we used probably ninety-percent of what she did right off the bat. She was so on. The character just came right to life when she came in.
PC: So you had a good rehearsal process, since you've been working on this for a couple years now?
NG: Yeah, it's been two years now on this film. The audition process is very important because when it comes to these movies, story is very important. Story sort of drives everything, so we were lucky to get a big name like Donna to tell our story. But, we were really just looking for the right person for the role. And, it turned out, she's perfect. We saw hundreds of people for that role. We saw a lot of big names.
PC: Like who?
NG: We can't tell you that! I'll just say Donna blew them - and us - all away.
PC: A singing actress can act so much more with her voice than just a vocalist or an actress with a voice double.
BH: That's so true. That was really important to us, to find someone who could act and sing. That was very tough, actually. We sort of put them through their acting paces in the audition and then we'd do music. But, with Donna, we already knew she was a spectacular singer.
PC: Of course. But, there were others who were good at one but not the other?
BH: Yeah, some of the other folks we brought in for the roles, we loved their acting, but...
PC: What about the surprisingly great singing voice of Zachary Levi?
BH: Zach Levi - we only knew him from CHUCK, really - we just loved his acting audition. He was so charming and so funny and so smart. We were just like, "He's so perfect for this, let's hope he can sing!" And, then, we just sat there white-knuckled for a minute or two while he got ready to sing. Then, he sang "Sweet Baby James" - the James Taylor song - and it was just this beautiful, rich, natural voice that he sings with. It sounded real.
PC: And you want an earthier quality for his character, anyway.
BH: We want it to be real. We want the experience - the moments, the characters, the story - we want them to be as real as possible. Something that you leave the theatre remembering intellectually - not just something that moved you, but something that will stick with you forever.
BH: Yeah, the duet is great. And, speaking of Mandy: like for Gothel, we saw hundreds of actresses for Rapunzel. That was very tough, as well, because there were a lot of actresses who were great, but something was not quite right. But, when Mandy came in we knew she was going to be perfect.
PC: Could you trace the development of the film from idea to you becoming involved to the script and getting it going?
NG: This movie has actually been around since the 1940s - you know, the idea of bringing the Rapunzel story to life. Much like BEAUTY & THE BEAST and THE LITTLE MERMAID - they went through the same process. So, at some point we were brought on to take another crack at it. At that point, we had a pretty clean slate. We brought a new direction to what had been done before.
BH: It's all part of the process. The time is right, right now, I think, for this story.
PC: How did you go about deciding to use 3D for this film since Disney is so famous for hand-drawn animation - even though ALICE IN WONDERLAND in 3D just became one of their most successful movies to date?
NG: Whether it's done in 2D or 3D or CG - those are all storytelling tools. So, we really look at the story that we have and try to figure out what the best tools are to tell the story. Because of this movie being so huge, the scope - I mean, it's a giant roller coaster with action and drama and heart - we just felt 3D was the only way to go. Using CG and using the computer to animate it, that was a decision we made based on us wanting this film to go back to the roots of the 30s and 40s and go back to that world, but give it a fresh new feeling in the 3D. So, I think that's why we went in that direction.
BH: Yeah, and, you know, there is a scene in this film where Mandy and Zach - Flynn and Rapunzel - are out on a gondola floating in the bay around the kingdom at night watching 45,000 floating lanterns gleaming above us. It's this floating lantern sequence that we got from lantern ceremonies that they do in Indonesia where they set up these rice paper lanterns and send them into the sky. It's the most spectacular animation sequence you've ever seen in 3D CG. It's just amazing. It is not to be missed. It's so emotional with the music and the images. It will not disappoint.
PC: Have past Disney films had a big influence on TANGLED? Or, perhaps stage musicals or other outside influences?
BH: Nathan and I are like a couple of sponges. We have things we like about live-action films and stage performances and music - we have so many influences. I mean, a photograph can influence you, or the way someone says something - so many things. We always try to think of new things to add to these movies. So, we go out there and try to soak up all this stuff - all this inspiration, all this magic. We try to cram as much of it as we can into ninety minutes of film.
PC: And you have a huge studio, correct?
BH: We have about four hundred, four hundred and fifty people who work on these movies with us. We are really proud of the team we have here. It's a pretty remarkable place to work.
NG: It's in Burbank. It's actually the oldest running animation studio in all of Hollywood. That's pretty exciting, just to be a part of that history. I mean, we have a guy named Glen Keane working on this movie and he animated Ariel and The Beast and Aladdin. Such a rich history is here. But, at the same time, there's this fresh new talent coming in and really giving this place a whole new look and feel. It's combing the old and new that is always the most exciting thing for us.
PC: Disney seems that they are one of the only studios getting young talent and giving them a chance to create.
BH: Yeah, BOLT! was our first film. We really love this place. It's such a great, creative environment. I think what you are going to see is that these films are going to get even smarter and more diverse and more bold as we release things from year to year. We are very, really excited - we can see about five years into the future as far as our slate goes - and we are so excited about what's coming up.
NG: I think there is something, too, about brining in all this fresh new talent and keeping the films contemporary and unexpected. I think by bringing in new talent for each film, that will keep these films from ever becoming stale. We really have an amazing line-up coming up at Disney. It's gonna really blow people away!
PC: Can you give me a hint?
BH: They keep it pretty hush-hush. (Laughs. Pause.) But, let me tell you a little Broadway trivia instead.
BH: You know Brian Yorkey? The guy who won the Tony for NEXT TO NORMAL last year? I was in Vocal Jazz in high school with that guy! We were in a singing group together. (Laughs.)
PC: Thanks for that tidbit!
BH: I just saw NEXT TO NORMAL and when I was looking through the program I saw my friend who has obviously been doing great things. I was blown away by the show. But, yeah, it's part of what you were saying about this fresh, new wave of talent making its way through Broadway and Hollywood. It's great to see.
PC: Did you like NEXT TO NORMAL?
BH: I've actually seen it twice now. It's amazing. Alice Ripley is another favorite of ours. She is just amazingly talented. Broadway has just got this great, diverse ability to have these big-tent pole shows with high production values and then smaller shows with smaller production values. Do you know [TITLE OF SHOW]?
PC: Oh, of course! It defines small-scale!
BH: Yeah, that had like no budget at all. It's great to see that form still exists in the arts community. You know, where you can have a PHANTOM and a Disney show and also smaller, even off-Broadway stuff, at the same time. The diversity is great to see.
PC: Where do you place this film in the Disney pantheon?
SNOW WHITE to SLEEPING BEAUTY to THE LITTLE MERMAID to THE LION KING to today.
NG: When I saw THE LITTLE MERMAID, I think what that film did for Disney was to re-invent the way Disney uses music in its films and, now, it feels like we are doing the same. This is going to be something different. It's not going to be more of the same, yet in some ways it will. I mean, what you love about those movies in the past, this will have that same flavor to it, but, at the same time, we are taking it in a totally different direction. I think it's really going to surprise people.
PC: Not more of the same, but more of the best!
NG: In one of our preview screenings, since we've had a few preview screenings now - just bringing in a general audience to see the movie - we do a Q&A afterwards. One of my favorite quotes was when they asked, "What do you like about this film?" and someone raised their hand and said, "This is like classic Disney, but better." So, if we can make people feel that way then we have done our job.
PC: It's like a 90 minute-long magic carpet ride, then - almost like the audience is a character in the film, given the nature of 3D.
BH: Yes. That's the most important thing. The audience has to feel and empathize with your characters. If we have done our job right, you will feel every emotion Flynn and Rapunzel go through. Since it's sort of an adventure-romance, we wanted to have their relationship develop in a very real way. We were very careful with the acting to make it very precise and very, very emotional. There are some scenes in the movie that will really surprise people - some really striking emotional stuff.
PC: Did you bring contemporary issues into it at any point?
NG: I think what we were looking for most was a relatability. Since we have created this sort of fantasy world, we wanted it all to be very believable. Along the journey you have to relate to these characters. I think people will see that our animators have really worked very hard to raise the bar for human animation in this film. It's really beyond anything anyone has seen before. It's just incredible.
PC: Define collaboration as it pertains to this project.
BH: One of the reasons that Nathan and I are in animation is that it is probably the most collaborative process out here in Hollywood. The reason Nathan and I are directing partners is because the films we make are such huge endeavors, it really helps to have a partner. I mean, we look at the great writing teams from Broadway and all of that - it just helps to have someone else to bounce ideas off of, to have two brains working to pull off these massive challenged that these films present.
NG: There's something very interesting in these movies because when it comes to the departments you are working with, you are working with some of the most talented people in the world. So, we go in with our vision of what we think the film should be and, along the way, the crew works with us and help us bring it to life. Also, the thing I find so great about this job is that by working with the best, it makes me a better artist - you know, I'm working with the best animators in the world, so that helps me become a better animator. The benefits go both ways. It's an amazing process.
PC: Name your favorite Disney movie and why.
NG: My favorite - without a doubt - is DUMBO. I love, love, love that movie. It has the right blend of everything. So much emotion, and it's funny, and, even though it was made in the 40s it holds up still today. Lots of times I want to watch that movie and my girlfriend is like, "DUMBO again? I get so emotional...." So, I don't get to see it as much as I like. It's actually my favorite film of all time, as well.
BH: I love so many of them. I gotta say my favorite is probably, overall, CINDERELLA - if only just because we looked a lot to that with this film in how the music was used. A movie with music. Like how PINNOCHIO worked. There was something about those films that was so great. But, with CINDERELLA, it's such a heartfelt story and you root for the main character. And, the charm of that world that they created was just one of my favorite things to see, ever.
PC: Is TANGLED going to be released on Blu-Ray 3D disc?
BH: Yes! It is! It will be the first Disney movie on 3D disc.
PC: Thanks so much, Byron and Nathan! This was great!
NG: Thanks a lot, Pat! Take care.
BH: It really was. Thanks so much. It was our pleasure.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro